At first glance, Abdullah Khan’s debut novel Patna Blues seems to be the story of a young man who falls in love with an older woman; the relationship being further complicated because they belong to different religions. But soon, it becomes obvious that the love story is just one of the many narrative strands in the novel.
Set in the 1990s, when the country saw many political and social changes, the trajectory of doomed attraction between the couple seems to echo the upheavals in society.
The fury of religious riots and the changing rules of educational opportunities that threaten to derail the lives of youth form the backdrop in this novel. The depiction of the easy ways in which the collective anger of people can be stoked to dangerous levels offers sobering insights into how religious fault lines can make neighbours turn on each other without hesitation or mercy. The author points out how stray rumours can be used to fire up passions and create disturbances in society — a tactic that has been employed around the world by forces intent on letting differences fuel their insatiable hunger for power.
Abdullah Khan, a Mumbai-based screenwriter, lyricist and novelist, was born in a poor Muslim village near Motihari, Bihar. He was educated in an Islamic seminary and Urdu-medium schools. Though the story is fictional, many events and characters have been modelled on real-life incidents and people that the author has come across.
He takes us from the city of Patna to the rural areas of Bihar in a seamless narrative rich with descriptions. When circumstances keep arranging a meeting between the protagonist Arif Khan, a young man preparing for his IAS exams, and Sumitra, the wife of a bank manager, the two try to fight off their mutual attraction. Khan has to think not only about his responsibility to his family as the firstborn, but also the strict moral codes instilled in him by his god-fearing mother and grandmother. He tries to concentrate on his studies and move past his attraction by physically removing himself from Patna and focusing on trying to clear the UPSC examinations.
Every year, when the results are announced in the newspapers, there is always a reference to successful candidates from Bihar or a coaching institute from the region boasting a tally of students topping the fiercely competitive examination. This single-minded purpose of joining the civil services among the youth comes across in the determined efforts of Khan and his friend who mark their days to the portions of studies they have to complete.
Khan studies diligently and comes close to cracking the exam. But he fails at the interview stage, and has to start all over again. When this happens repeatedly, he begins to wonder if his name has something to do with his failure. But he manages to go back to his books with hope and determination.
This thread of hope is a recurring motif in the novel, allowing reprieve from the many disturbing events unfolding around Khan, who belongs to a lower middle-class family. However, even when the characters live out their lives on hope, the heavy hand of disappointment marches alongside, striking repeatedly.
Khan’s family — brother Zakir, three sisters, parents and grandmother — all have to fight their battles in a world where chance leans in favour of the privileged.
Zakir enjoys a run of success as a theatre actor in Patna but when he tries to take his talent to the big screen, he finds it difficult to make a mark. For Rabiya, Khan’s eldest sister, whose marriage has been fixed and preparations have begun, the last-minute demand for a large dowry leads the family to take a tough decision. When it is time for the marriage of the next sister in line, Khan’s family has to decide whether to get her married to a much older man.
Framing the story are intriguing descriptions of life in the interior regions of Bihar where travelling in the bullock cart was a norm even in the last decade of the 20th-century. Tales about river ghosts and Robin Hood-style dacoits who come to Khan’s rescue while he was fleeing from armed bandits offer fascinating glimpses of life in a place not in immediate view. Livening up the narrative further are poems and couplets in Urdu that act as the bridge between the blossoming love between Khan and the older Sumitra.
As the novel comes to an end, we find Khan on the brink of new beginnings, personally and professionally, even though they are not what he had envisaged for himself. As he quietly accepts the choices sent his way by fate, he soon becomes aware of some tough decisions he would have to take in the near future.
The author has left some questions unanswered, and the reader can only guess and hope that the answers will come in a sequel or two. Patna Blues is an unputdownable saga of life from one of the less explored parts of India.
Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer based in Chennai
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